“Growing wheat is getting harder in a warming world” was the headline of a story I came across the first week of June. Needless to say, with the outlook of dismal wheat crops in both Oklahoma and Kansas thanks to the drought, this definitely caught my eye.
The article referenced a new study published recently in the journal NPJ Climate and Atmospheric Science that suggested heat waves and temperature spikes (and along with them the damage they can cause to wheat crops) are becoming more normal in the central part of the U.S.
According to the study:
“Previous analyses of the possibility of global breadbasket failures have extrapolated risks based on historical relationships between climate and yields. However, climate change is causing unprecedented events globally, which could exceed critical thresholds and reduce yields, even if there is no historical precedent. This means that we are likely underestimating climate risks to our food system. In the case of wheat, parts of the USA and China show little historical relationship between yields and temperature, but extreme temperatures are now possible that exceed critical physiological thresholds in wheat plants.”
The study goes on to say that extreme temperatures that we would have expected to happen once every 100 years back in 1981 now happen roughly once every six years. This means (according to this study) that Midwest, extreme temperatures that used to have a 1% chance of occurring in 1981 now have a 17% chance to occur. That means increased chances of drought and reductions in grain production due to the impact temperature fluctuation has on vernalization.
According to the authors, “local stakeholders might perceive their risk to be lower than it really is. We find that there is a high potential for surprise in these regions if people base risk analyses solely on historical datasets.”
If that isn’t concerning enough, another study published last month in the Journal Nature showed that moving forward, flash drought risk over cropland is expected to increase globally, with the largest increases projected across North America. If you are unfamiliar with what a flash drought is (you shouldn’t be if you follow this blog) The National Integrated Drought Information System (or NIDIS) defines a flash drought as:
“The rapid onset or intensification of drought. It is set in motion by lower-than-normal rates of precipitation, accompanied by abnormally high temperatures, winds and radiation. Together, these changes in weather can rapidly alter the local climate.
Higher temperature increases evapotranspiration—the process by which water is transferred from the land to the atmosphere by evaporation from the soil and by transpiration from plants—and further lowers soil moisture, which decreases rapidly as drought conditions continue.”
Add to this the predicted weather pattern variations we are expected to see as the climate continues to change-more violent, intense rainstorms followed by extended dry periods (think flash drought)-the weather related challenges that Southern Plains agriculture can expect in the future are more likely than not to increase.
This is the reason we need to seriously consider making changes to our cropping and grazing systems that help “harden” our farms and ranches to extreme weather events. We need to look at implementing climate-smart ag practices that help us hold on to more moisture when we do get those heavy rains and allow us to have a cushion of additional soil moisture to better weather the extended dry periods.
With new funds now available through programs like the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), it would be a good time to visit your local USDA Service Center to see what assistance you qualify for and what strategies you could consider for your agriculture operation.
We also need to continue developing crop varieties that can better withstand drought and other environmental stresses like the current work being undertaken by the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Manhattan, Kan. We need to improve our seed varieties to give us the tools necessary to deal with these growing challenges. In the near future, we hope to have some of the researchers working in this area on our podcast to talk about this important effort.
The times are changing. We need to do what we can now to get ready for the challenges we are going to see moving forward.